The Passion Of The Christ Submission

Published: Wed 7 Apr 2004 01:11 PM
Re: “The Passion Of The Christ” Submission To The Film And Literature Board Of Review
Presented orally to Board (in summary) on 15 March 2004 By Mike Petrus (president) and David Lane (secretary)
The Society contends that the Film and Literature Board of Review should take careful note of a number of highly relevant classification decisions, particularly Alberta’s Censor’s point that the violence depicted in “The Passion of the Christ” is “mitigated by historical context and reverent tone”.
“The Passion of the Christ” has been opened to young teenagers accompanied by parents or guardians in recent classification decisions in Canada and the Republic of Ireland, confirming similar censorship ratings in Australia (MA15+ allowing those under 15 years to attend if accompanied by parent or guardian) and the United States (those under 17 years can attend if accompanied by parent or guardian). The Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification, in its decision dated 17 February 2004, noted that “In relation to these depictions [of ‘scourging’ and ‘crucifixion of Jesus’] ‘the overall viewing impact … does not exceed strong’ … [and] found that “The Passion of the Christ” sits firmly within the MA15+ classification” See:
New Zealand’s Chief Censor, Mr Hastings, who was born in Canada and spent much of his earlier career there before coming to New Zealand to take up a position in the Victoria University Law Department, has regularly highlighted the Ontario classification authority as one that our own Classification Office should supposedly model itself on, due to what he claims is its close adherence to human rights issues and a proper consideration of issues of freedom of expression. The New Zealand Government Administration Committee, following its recent two year review of the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993, has seemingly taken up his Office’s submissions on this point and recommended, as he points out in his recent Office’s Annual Report (p. 10), that: “the Government investigate the suitability of the Canadian province of Ontario as an ‘overseas classification authority’ from which ratings could be taken.”
The Ontario Film Review Board (OFRB) has given it a classification: 18A [persons under 18 years of age must be accompanied by an adult] Warnings: Brutal Violence; Gory Scenes.
British Columbia's Film Classification Office (FCO) has given it a classification: 18A [persons under 18 years of age must be accompanied by an adult] with warnings: Explicit Violence; May Offend Some Religious Groups.
[NOTE: British Columbia's Film Classification Office classifies and censors movies on behalf of Saskatchewan and the Yukon.]
Alberta's Film Classification And Arts Education has classified the film: 18A [persons under 18 years of age must be accompanied by an adult] with warnings: Brutal And Gory Violence; Disturbing Content: Content Elements: i) frightening depictions of demons; ii) frequent, intense bloody beatings in a context of ridicule and scorn; iii) prolonged, detailed portrayal of torture by flogging - bloody wounds; iv) portrayal of death by crucifixion - broken bones, bloody wounds and intense agony.
Its Classification Rationale: “Rated 18A for intense depictions of torture and brutality, mitigated by historical context and reverent tone.”
[NOTE: Alberta's Film Classification and Arts Education classifies and censors movies on behalf of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.]
The Republic of Ireland’s censor has issued a 15PG certificate for “The Passion of the Christ” and has taken the rare step of issuing a reason.
John Kelleher said he did not believe that director Mel Gibson's purpose was anti-Semitic and the film was not related to "Jewish people in general".
He said the film would be relevant to people in Ireland, but urged caution about its scenes of "explicit cruelty".
“The Passion of the Christ” is to be released in the Republic of Ireland on 12 March.
'Personal statement'
In his statement Kelleher - a film producer appointed last April - says that The Passion is "clearly a strong personal statement of the director's own religious faith".
He describes Mel Gibson's film - a graphic depiction of Jesus Christ's last hours and crucifixion - as "a serious cinematic dramatisation of an event that goes to the core of belief of very many people in Ireland". Mr Kelleher told BBC News Online that it was "pretty rare" of him to explain his decisions in public. "I intend to do so on a regular basis if there is something relating to a film which I believe consumers (principally parents) should be aware of," he said.
Classification Options Open for “The Passion of the Christ”
The Society for the Promotion of Community Standards (Inc.) disputes the Chief Censor Mr Bill Hasting’s views expressed on public radio (NewstalkZB and RadioNZ) that “no child” – defined by him as those “under 16 years of age” - should ever be allowed “within a mile” of the film “The Passion of the Christ”, due to its “gratuitous” and “unrelenting violence”. He appears inconsistent, as the NZPA reports him as saying “classrooms’ applications for an exemption to show the film to under-16s for educational purposes would be considered [by him] if parental consent was given” (Dominion Post 25 Feb). The OFLC website ( informs educators of this option involving exemption applications, open to them with respect to restricted films such as “Saving Private Ryan” (R15) (see later discussion). In its article published in the NZ Herald (27 February 2004) the Society secretary wrote: “You have to laugh at the exquisite irony of the situation.” A resolute Mr Hastings is reported by NZPA as saying “the rating would not be lowered” after declaring on radio that no “child” should be allowed near it. Then he states that he would consider exceptions for “educational purposes … if parental consent was given”. But this is exactly what the Society wants, except that it considers parents are better endowed to make this judgement than Mr Hastings (his Office charges a $100 non-refundable fee for applications lodged). Section 44 of the Act does empower him to grant such exemptions for those under 16. However, the Society argues that if the film was re-classified “R” then all year 11 students 15 & 16 year-olds) who wished to, for example, could view the film at a theatre with parental or guardian support.
The Society in its public statements following the issuing of the R16 classification decision on 20 February, has called for a “R” classification for the 35 mm film “The Passion of the Christ” which would restrict its theatrical release to those 16 years of age and older, but allow those younger than this age to attend if accompanied by parent or guardian.
There is ample precedent for this. Perhaps the best known example of this is the video VHS/PAL recording of the 35 mm film Once Were Warriors. It has a censor’s descriptive note “contains violence” and depicts unrelenting realistic domestic and gang violence and brutal rape scene. The Information Unit of the Office of Film and Literature Classification, in response to a recent official information request from the Society, has provided evidence that 43 publications (films, videos and DVDs) have received this precise classification since the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993 came into force in 1994. Two of these had the additional restriction requiring the screening of the film to be limited to the NZ Film Festival.
The Classification Office has also confirmed that an additional six publications (5 DVDs and one video) have received the “R” classification with the audience age restriction set at 13 years or over, with the provision that those children younger than 13 years can view the publications if accompanied by a parent or guardian.
The Society concludes that Chief Censor Mr Hastings had more than ample precedent to grant a “R” restricted classification to the film The Passion, in line with the more lenient Australian, Canadian, Irish and US classification decisions (see SPCS submission Part I).
Since the Society has received notification from Hoyts Distribution (NZ) on 2 March 2004 of its intention to appeal the OFLC classification decision and apply for a review to the Board, it has seen the wisdom of finding common ground with the applicant and other groups nation-wide (e.g. Vision NZ Network, Parenting With Confidence, Catholic Communications and others) who have voiced concerns over the film’s initial classification.
The Society’s call in the light of this wider consultation is for the classification to be adjusted downwards by the Board to R15. This is a classification rating that was given by the OFLC to the film “Saving Private Ryan” which contains “graphic realistic war scenes”. This film is one that, despite its unrelenting and disturbing graphic violence, Jack Valenti, retired president of the US MPAA Censorship Authority, recently described on BBC “Hardtalk” as a film that should be seen be every American young person, because it would show them the “cost of our redemption” as a nation.
Many Christian church leaders have expressed a similar view with respect to The Passion, which depicts “the cost of the redemption of mankind from the curse, corruption, consequences and power of sin”. However, there is widespread agreement that it is a film that is generally not suitable for those persons younger than 13 years of age because of the “strong impact of its violence” despite the significant mitigation of such effects by “context and reverent tone.”
The Need for Informed Consultation
Under s. 21(1) of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 (“the Act”) the Office of Film and Literature Classification: “In examining any publication for the purposes of this Part of this Act … may show the publication to any person whom the Classification Office considers may be able to assist the Office in forming an opinion of the publication on which to base the decision of the Classification Office in respect of the publication”.
The only persons officially consulted by the Office in the classification of “The Passion of the Christ” who were not from within the Office, were:
(1) An associate Baptist pastor
(2) A NZ Jewish Council member
(3) A Presbyterian Minister
(4) Administrator, Methodist Church. (Disclosed to the apparently genuine surprise of the Chief Censor that he was a Roman Catholic during course of interview – raising the astonishing question of whether Mr Hastings ever seriously intended to consult any Catholic over a film of such significance to Catholics and a film classification process which could so obviously benefit from the particular expertise that a Catholic leader could bring to the film’s analysis.
(5) A Jewish Rabbi
Mr Hastings described these people as “various religious leaders” on public radio. The consultations took the form of telephone interviews (see on Thursday 19 February 2004, the day after the interviewees had seen the film at the Reading Cinema (No. 5) Theatre in Courtney Place, Wellington. This special screening on Wednesday night 18 February, in the week prior to the film’s official world-wide release on Ash Wednesday 25 February, was arranged by Hoyts Distribution, not the Classification Office. A questionnaire was handed out by the Hoyts theatre management to each member of the audience requesting information on each person’s faith/denomination and their views on the film’s appropriate age restriction (if any). One question asked viewers to indicate whether or not they were prepared to be contacted by the Classification Office and interviewed about their views on the film and its classification.
Under s. 54(1) of the Act, “the Board shall have the same power to consult any person … as is conferred on the Classification Office by section 21 of this Act.”
S. 52 of the Act states that the Board’s review “shall be by way of re-examination of the publication … without regard to the decision of the Classification Office.” (Emphasis added).
The Society urges the Board to undertake a thorough consultation process in the course of its review of the classification of “The Passion of the Christ” and involve among others, recognised national Christian leaders and those responsible for the spiritual and moral education and guidance of young people (13-17), who have seen the film. Such leaders should have the opportunity of making their own submissions which address specific concerns that are of interest to the Board and are relevant to s. 3 of the Act.
The rushed telephone ‘consultations’ organised by the Classification Office with respect to The Passion, contrasted with the consultations organised by the Office with respect to the films Baise-Moi, Irreversible and Ken Park. In these cases the processes of consultation involved invitations to national organisations to make submissions (e.g. Rape Crisis), written submissions were called for, consultants were interviewed in person and the process took several months.
The Society is concerned at the style of interview carried out by Mr Hastings, involving numerous loaded questions, a narrow focus on the issue of anti-semitism, and an apparent dismissal of genuine views expressed regarding appropriate age restrictions (see the interview with the associate pastor, Appendix I). No submissions were invited by Mr Hastings.
The Society is concerned that before the Classification Office had even registered its classification decision with respect to the film on Friday 20 February 2004, the Chief Censor, Mr Bill Hastings, had already made highly critical personal comments on the film on public radio (NewsTalk ZB 17/2/04. Interview with Leighton Smith). All those given the privilege of viewing the film by the distributor prior to its official release had signed and kept to agreements that they would not provide public comments on the film’s content before its NZ premier.
Mr Hastings issued his criticisms on 17 February in a live radio interview before he had engaged in any consultations outside the Office and before the Office’s decision had even been registered.
Then, after he had issued his decision and before the film premiered he issued more highly critical personal comments (NewsTalk ZB 20/2/04. Interview with Larry Williams) and others on National Radio.
Speaking to Tony Field on TV3 News he stated:
“Whatever spiritual message this film was trying to convey … I think the violence – the high level of violence was in danger of overpowering any spiritual message… We thought the violence was so high level that we just couldn’t find the words that would adequately warn parents about the violence in the film”. [Emphasis added].
After the Society applied to the Secretary on 20 February to have the classification reviewed, the Chief Censor advanced more highly critical personal comments on the film in the media, some containing outright errors of fact that had the effect of putting people off from viewing the film, such as:
“In the movie [“The Passion of the Christ”] Christ’s eyes are pecked out by a raven while he is still alive. That is not in the Gospel”, says Chief Censor Bill Hastings, as quoted in the NZPA report published today in The Dominion Post (25 Feb. p. A2).
In the film a raven does not peck out the eyes of Christ while he is alive or dead. A raven does not touch Christ. The Society responded to Mr Hasting’s errors in a press release on 26 February:
“If Mr Hastings can not distinguish between the impenitent thief on the cross and Christ, something other viewers of the movie have had no difficulty doing when commenting on the same incident on talk-back radio, and if the theological expertise he has claimed to have on tap in his Office [in his interview with Leighton Smith 17/2] and elsewhere is unaware of the wealth of symbolic import traditionally attaching over centuries to the figure of the raven in Christian art and architecture, then one can have little confidence in Mr Hasting’s ability to sift the fern seed of the more subtle considerations of this important film.”
(“Since the raven did not return to the [Noah’s] ark, it is said to be a symbol of the indifferent and impenitent sinner” [Glossary of Christian Symbol Terms, A. H. Collins [Symbolism of Animals and Birds] explains that “Confession and penance are like ravens, which pull out the eyes of covetousness from the soul which is dead in trespasses and sins.”] The film’s artistic contrast of the raven with the dove, the latter being a widely recognised symbol of Divine peace and of the Holy Spirit, which came to rest on Noah’s ark and which the Christ sees in the sky in the film, is composed of sufficiently familiar symbols to make the expectation a reasonable one that any difficulty could have been cleared up with even a rather cursory consultation with reference books or persons. In Christian iconography the raven or crow is the symbol of the devil who is a liar, the ego-God, the lower nature, he who “lives by bread alone”, and eats and drinks of this world. See “The Dove and the Crow”, Studies in Comparative Religion, [1984] Vol 16, pp. 141-147.
Further, the raven attack is not presented in an ambiguous manner in the film. The penitent thief is clearly identified, with a classical and stylised appearance, and he expresses clearly his recognition of his own sin. He asks to be remembered when the Christ comes into his Kingdom and the Christ promises him that he will be with him in paradise. The impenitent thief, no less stylised and in the sharpest contrast in appearance and attitude, hurls a reproach or imprecation at the Christ and is immediately attacked by the raven. A continuous aerial shot follows the raven to the impenitent thief, eliminating any possible ambiguity. (The impenitent thief had in fact been further clearly identified, with the contrast augmented even more, by the an earlier segment in which the penitent thief addresses the impenitent thief.) The Christ can be clearly distinguished from the two thieves by his central position, Crown of Thorns and bloodied body. Given that it has been rightly remarked that Christian art comprises essentially three images: the Virgin and Child, the Crucifixion and the Holy Visage or Face of Christ, it is reasonable to expect that such a very widely recognised image as the Crucifixion, and the geometry of the figures involved should be familiar to most educated people, even among the very secular.)
The Society stated: “Such confidence is hardly inspired by Mr Hastings’ bizarre comparisons on Newstalk ZB Radio (17/2) of The Passion with straight-out horror films such as the theologically defective The Exorcist and – more astonishingly still - Rosemary’s Baby.”
These comparisons were not made by any of the Office’s consultants, nor do they appear in the classification decision (OFLC Ref: 400212). They were only Mr Hasting’s personal views, which anecdotal evidence indicates to have adversely influenced some members of the public, and were made before he consulted anyone outside his Office, before the decision was registered and before the film was released to the public. Many Christians world-wide protested against the film The Exorcist, and yet Mr Hastings thought it appropriate to compare The Passion with this film.
As the Society press release noted:
“He [Hastings] makes a major category mistake in insisting that the film fits the “horror genre” merely because he has identified depictions of “gargoyle-like demons associated with Satan”, “eerie sound effects lighting and music” and “supernatural” elements. As with the raven, he betrays no understanding of the import and significance of the gargoyle in Christian architecture and art”.
The sequence in which Satan holds a middle-aged “baby”, for example, reflects Gibson’s theological insight that “That’s what evil is about, taking something that is good and twisting it a little bit.”: Satan mocks by distortion the overwhelmingly familiar and central image of the Virgin and Child. The Virgin is shown across the crowd from Satan, to make the contrast more apparent. This is at a remove of an abyss from the gratuitous presentation of “horror” elements to disturb without enlightenment.
Similarly, the Judas sequence shows a man pursued by demons associated with his own remorse and guilt. Pursuit by demons is a familiar metaphor applied routinely and widely in the secular world (by and about prominent sporting figures, for example) and is understood without difficulty by blunt and unimaginative persons. Again, it contrasts with the modern misuse of horror to gratuitously disturb and dismay, often focusing on the despairing victimisation of the innocent and presenting traditional securities and safeguards as unsettlingly impotent.
Gargoyles, as “images of the demoniacal” are essentially “prisoners under the sway of a superior spirituality. This is shown by their position in the hierarchy of the ornamentation [of cathedrals, for example]: they are always subordinated to angelic, celestial images. They never occupy the centre.” (J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols). This summary could serve as a commentary of the measured and subtle presentation of evil elements by Gibson. They never occupy the centre of his film, and the Christ crushes the serpent’s head in the Garden (see Genesis 3:15), in the hope he declares to his Mother when he says He is making all things new (Revelation) and in His loving forgiveness of his enemies. Gratuitous film horror is by contrast central, often triumphant over good, and in a horrid sort of “bad infinity” is often presented as somehow indestructible.
The Society’s earlier press release stated:
“He [Hastings] wrote that the [R16] restriction [his Office gives the film] is due to the
film’s treatment of matters of violence, cruelty and horror”). This is exactly
the same sort of unsophisticated category error that he would no doubt be the
first to pillory, were it to be made by a poorly educated and narrow moralist
blind to possible redeeming artistic and cultural merits. It is difficult to
resist the impression that a faddish and politically-correct adherence to a
mindset hostile to traditional Christian religious expression has blinded him
to the merits of a major cinematic achievement, which Time Magazine describes
as a “strenuously reverent adaptation of some famous chapters from the all-time
best-selling book”.
Comments on “The Passion of the Christ”
"After watching The Passion ..., I feel as if I have actually been there. I was moved to tears. I doubt if there has ever been a more graphic and moving presentation of Jesus' death and resurrection."
-- Dr. Billy Graham, President, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
"The Passion of Christ by Mel Gibson is one of the most deeply disturbing and powerful movies I've ever seen, but one that everyone should watch. I recommend it highly."
-- Dr. James Dobson, Chairman, Focus on the Family
"Mel Gibson captures with explosive poignancy the final excruciating hours of Jesus' life. This movie will forever change your view of God Himself, and what He did for us all on that dark day in history as He endured an ignominious trial and hung on the cross."
-- The late Dr. Bill Bright, President, Campus Crusade for Christ
"[Gibson's film] represents by far the most moving, substantive and artistically successful adaption of biblical material ever attempted by Hollywood."
Michael Medved, Film Critic and Radio Show Host
"This may be the last movie Mel Gibson makes. This is the ultimate film. It's magical. Best picture I have seen in quite some time, and even people like Jack Valenti were in the audience in tears at this screening. There was about 30 of us. It depicts a clash between Jesus and those who crucified him, and speaking as a Jew, I thought it was a magical film that showed the perils of life on earth... They haven't seen the darn film and those of us, every single person in there, and I'm not talking about tears, I'm talking total tears. It is something Mel Gibson stood back at the end and took questions for about an hour, and he is -- he told me he's tired of Hollywood. That this is it. He's going to do it. He's going to do it his way, and this film, I tell you, is magic. It's a miracle. It's a miracle...
-- Matt Drudge, Drudge Report (In an interview on MSNBC, July 23, 2003).
Matters of Violence, Cruelty and Horror
The Society agrees with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) that “The Passion of the Christ” fits within the category of a “drama”. It is a “dramatisation” as the NZ Classification Office correctly notes “of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ” that led to his death and later culminates with his Resurrection. The film is made using artistic elements designed to convey the deeply spiritual aspects of the drama e.g. the mental, psychological, physical and spiritual anguish of the Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36-46; Mk. 14:32-42; Lk. 22:40-46); his spiritual separation of the Christ from his Father on the Cross; the possession of Judas by Satan, etc.
The Society rejects the view that this film fits the “horror” category. It is quite irresponsible to claim this film fits the same genre as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby as the Chief Censor has done on NewsTalk ZB (27/2/04) prior to the OFLC decision being registered. Such bizarre comments have served to turn many people off going to this film. Despite this it remains a No. 1 Box Office hit here in NZ and overseas.
The film commences with the prophetic words taken from Isaiah chapter 53 written about 700 years before the events of Calvary. This significant prophecy accepted by Catholics and Protestants alike, foretells the suffering and death of Jesus the Messiah, the Suffering Servant and Man of Sorrows. It is well known to most Christians, religious scholars and others…. “He was pierced through for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. … by His scourging we are healed.” This chapter is central to an understanding of the Doctrines of The Atonement, Propitiation for Sin, and Redemption etc.
Isaiah chapter 53 is preceded by the well known verse: “So His [the Messiah’s] appearance was marred [disfigured] more than any man and His form more than the sons of men. Thus He will sprinkle many nations…” (Is. 52:14).
It follows that Mel Gibson’s depiction of Christ’s passion according to many scholars, if anything, falls far short of communicating the true horror of Christ’s disfigurement, agony and chastisement etc. as revealed in the Bible. The Society makes no judgement on such issues.
There are many other passages in Scripture that Christian scholars tell us, accurately predict the intense suffering of the Messiah for the purpose of expiating sin. Ps. 22: 16 predicts: “They pierced my hands and my feet. I count all my bones [none of his bones were broken] They divide my garments among them and for my clothing they cast lots.” “They will look on Me [Jesus] whom they have pierced and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son…” (Zech. 12:10).
“The Passion of the Christ” dramatises the most important event to have shaped Western civilisation and religious thought. Its spiritual significance is at the centre-stage of Christian teaching and it is the mainspring of inspirational Western art, literature, philosophy, and music, among other things such as Christian social services etc.
It is not surprising that many who show disdain and contempt towards the Christian message of sacrifice, hope and forgiveness found in Jesus Christ, will try and vilify any attempt to realistically portray the death of Christ, as some sort of “repulsive masochistic fantasy” and deride this film as “a sacred snuff film” (as Wieseltier does in The New Republic as quoted by the Classification Office). “The notion that there is something spiritually exalting about the viewing of it [The Passion] is quite horrifying”, writes Wieseltier, who makes it clear he is not a Christian. He concedes that “torture has been depicted in film many times before, but almost always in a spirit of protest.” It’s OK then in his view to depict torture if the context is other than one in which religious elements alien to Wieseltier’s worldview are at centre-stage.
A “snuff movie” involves the deliberate filming of an actual murder (often preceded by an actual rape and/or body mutilation etc.) for the express purpose of the titillation of the viewer. It is a damning indictment of Wieseltier’s objectivity to compare The Passion with a snuff movie or compare it with the sadomasochistic practices of the sexual deviant. He writes that “This film makes no quarrel with the pain that it excitedly inflicts.” This is a bizarre comment born of sheer ignorance.
The pained agony of those of Jesus’ followers who witness the events as depicted in the film and dealt with in the Gospel accounts, is a clear echo of the pain his followers of today do feel (and give testimony to) recounting and reflecting upon the events of his Passion. It is perverse in the extreme to suggest that a high level of excitability and titillation in the minds of Christians is the intended purpose of this film, or indeed is the result from the viewing of this film. No balanced reviewer has suggested this.
It is not surprising that the Classification Office highlights a review by Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times that claims (1) the film “will probably be the most violent you have ever seen” and (2) that the US rating is incorrect.
The violence of “Saving Private Ryan” an R15 film is one of many one could highlight that is historical and its “graphic realistic violence" has been viewed by many. We are aware of no reviewer who has attacked it as titillating audiences by its violence or who has suggested its violence is gratuitous. Audiences are moved by the cost paid by young men to secure freedom and redemption. As Jesus said:
“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13)
This is why Jack Valenti, former president of the MPAA, made the point that every young person should see “Saving Private Ryan” so that they can better appreciate the enormity of their redemption. (It was consideration of the same historical context which allowed the BBFC to pass “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List” with a 15, despite intense scenes of brief - but horrific - violence, particularly in the former).
To use this analogy, the enormity of Christ’s redemption for the Christian, can only be understood in the light of a true understanding of the events of Calvary. This we believe is a fair representation of the merits of the film as argued by Christian scholars and reviewers.
Roger Ebert argues: If it had been anyone other than Jesus up on that cross, I have a feeling that NC-17 would have been automatic”.
Here, he panders to the shallow and misguided insinuations, rarely voiced, that somehow censors are being forced to show a degree of religious favouratism in granting the film its current US classification. It is stating the obvious that a film with overriding cultural, historical, artistic and religious significance commands a consideration by censors on a different level to a mere “smut movie”. The same argument applies regardless of whether or not the central figure is Jesus, or any other highly significant historical person.
The same arguments advanced in support of the merits of The Passion would equally apply to any serious film-making addressing an event involving great violence that has overwhelming merits artistically, historically etc. Films like Baise-Moi and Irreversible that contain unrelenting graphic violence juxtaposed with brutal and lengthy scenes of sexual violence are almost universally accepted to have little redeeming artistic, educational, or cultural merit. And yet the NZ Board of Review saw fit to downgrade the classification of Baise-Moi to make it available to general theatre audiences in NZ. (The Society is not aware of any favourable review of this film made by a NZ critic).
The same arguments advanced in support of the merits of The Passion would equally apply to any serious film-making addressing an event involving great violence that has overwhelming merits artistically, historically etc. Films like Baise-Moi and Irreversible that contain unrelenting graphic violence juxtaposed with sexual violence are almost universally accepted to have little redeeming artistic, educational, or cultural merit. And yet the Board of Review saw fit to downgrade the classification of Baise-Moi to make it available to general theatre audiences in NZ. Indeed, Mr Anthony Timpson, Director of the Beck’s Incredible Film Festival, belatedly conceded the absence of redeeming artistic merit in “Baise-Moi” in the Listener. By contrast, The Passion has overwhelming spiritual, literary and artistic merit, exemplified in the review in the prestigious academic journal First Things by Russell Hittinger, William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, and Elizabeth Lev, who teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus, which described it as “the best movie ever made about Jesus Christ.” Similarly, Rabbi Daniel Lapin predicts that the “Passion will become famous as the most serious and substantive Biblical movie ever made.” Similar examples of reviews, organisations and individuals praising and endorsing the film could be adduced almost ad infinitum. (See below)
The reviews cited by The Classification Office are highly selective highlighting so-called “ultraviolence”, “historically cramped historical account” and the depiction of “gruesome reality” that will traumatise children.
The Society does not advocate a classification that allows young children to view this film. It accepts that the level of realistic and graphic violence depicted is high like that of “Saving Private Ryan” and that it should be rated R15. If an “R” classification was to be issued the Society argues that a lower floor of 13 years be set under s. 23(2) of the Act, so that only those below the restricted upper floor could attend, but only if accompanied by a parent or guardian. [It was the historical context which allowed the BBFC to pass “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List” with a 15, despite intense scenes of brief - but horrific - violence, particularly in the former].
The Chief Censor appears to have tried to confuse the Society’s position in par. 19. The various classifications noted have been taken out of context. The position the Society advances (R15) to the Board is made following consultations with Hoyts Distribution, Vision NZ Network, Catholic Communication and other groups. This position is supported by Vision NZ Network and Parenting With Confidence (NZ). The Society wishes to draw the Board’s attention to the following review comments. The full reviews can be accessed from the websites noted:
Why Mel Owes One To The Jews
February 12, 2004
By Rabbi Daniel Lapin
President, Toward Tradition
Two weeks before Mel Gibson's Passion flashes onto two thousand screens, online ticket merchants are reporting that up to half their total sales are for advance purchases for Passion. One Dallas multiplex has reserved all twenty of its screens for The Passion. I am neither a prophet nor a movie critic. I am merely an Orthodox rabbi using ancient Jewish wisdom to make three predictions about The Passion.
One, Mel Gibson and Icon Productions will make a great deal of money. Those distributors who surrendered to pressure from Jewish organizations and passed on Passion will be kicking themselves, while Newmarket Films will laugh all the way to the bank. Theater owners are going to love this film.
Two, Passion will become famous as the most serious and substantive Biblical movie ever made. It will be one of the most talked-about entertainment events in history, it is currently on the cover of Newsweek and Vanity Fair.
My third prediction is that the faith of millions of Christians will become more fervent as Passion uplifts and inspires them. Passion will propel vast numbers of unreligious Americans to embrace Christianity. The movie will one day be seen as a harbinger of America's third great religious reawakening.
Those Jewish organizations that have squandered both time and money futilely protesting Passion, ostensibly in order to prevent pogroms in Pittsburgh, can hardly be proud of their performance. They failed at everything they attempted. They were hoping to ruin Gibson rather than enrich him. They were hoping to suppress Passion rather than promote it. Finally, they were hoping to help Jews rather than harm them….
Misguided Critics Fall Into The “Passion” Pit
By Michael Medved
Every day, Israel faces new attacks from terrorists determined to murder Jewish children. In France, synagogues burn, cemeteries face desecration, and leading rabbis urge their followers to shun kippot in public. In every corner of the globe, the militantly secular, America-hating left makes incongruous common cause with Islamic fundamentalism in circulating poisonous anti-Semitic canards, including ludicrous charges of Jewish conspiracies behind banking, media, “neo-conservative” foreign policy, and even the devastating attacks of 9/11.
In the midst of this alarming eruption of anti-Jewish sentiment, some usually level-headed commentators have reached the preposterous conclusion that this is the perfect moment for a ferocious new debate with our Christian neighbors on the eternal question, “Who really killed Jesus?” The fact that my otherwise savvy friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach believes that we have any chance at all of winning this debate reflects appallingly poor judgment. And the determination by Boteach and many others to conduct the argument in an aggressive and ultimately insulting way at this precarious moment in history represents a far greater spur to anti-Semitism than any mere motion picture from Hollywood—even a sure-bet box office blockbuster like Mel Gibson’s ““The Passion of the Christ”.”
The Passion and Prejudice
Why I asked the Anti-Defamation League to give Mel Gibson a break.
By Michael Medved | posted 02/24/04
Denunciations of Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ” by some influential organizations in the Jewish community reached their crescendo long before the movie's release, and began even before he had finished filming it. This proves that the charges of anti-Semitism surrounding this project for more than a year arose not from an honest assessment of the film, but from political prejudice and organizational imperatives.
See … Gibson’s Passion Russell Hittinger and Elizabeth Lev First Things 141 (March 2004): 7-10
… In “The Passion of the Christ”, scheduled to open in theatres on Ash Wednesday, Mel Gibson adds a work of cinematic art worthy to be mentioned with these classics of Christian culture.
Gibson’s Passion is bound to change our estimation of how a film can portray the life of Christ. Until now, movies about Jesus generally have been of two kinds. The first—perhaps to avoid trespassing on sacred terrain—abandons any ties to a canonical text. Here we can think of the whimsical Jesus in Montreal, or the hootenanny “gospels” of Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. There are also those provocateurs who try to win an audience through the “unauthorized biography” approach, such as Martin Scorsese in his film version of Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ. Films of this sort pay the price of making Jesus appear smaller and less compelling than the figure we can encounter in reading or, as the case may be, in questioning the canonical texts.
Russell Hittinger is the William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa; Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus.
APPENDIX (Part 1) see see
The Chief Censor has gone public on the fact that he would favorably consider under 16’s viewing the film for “educational purposes”.
See highlighted passage from NZ Herald article below, based on Dominion Post NZPA report:
Mr Bill Hastings said “…Classroom applications for an exemption to show the film to under 16’s for educational purposes would be considered if parental consent was given” (NZPA report Dominion Post, Otago Times and Southland Times).
The Society considers that the vast majority of parents and guardians have a much better idea of whether or not the film is suitable for their children than any Chief Censor.
“Gratuitous violence not the same as historical violence”
NZ Herald Friday 27 February 2004
A Response by David Lane to Jane Norton’s article: “Curb on freedoms a double-edged sword” NZ Herald 25.02.2004
COMMENT Contrary to Jane Norton's assertion, the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards was not shocked when the chief censor, Bill Hastings, gave “The Passion of the Christ” an R16 rating.
This is the same man who, when deputy president of the Film and Literature Board of Review, supported its decision to ban two Christian videos - largely talking-head opinion pieces.
The Court of Appeal ruled that nothing in the videos' contents came within the five jurisdictional gateways - sex, crime, cruelty, violence and horror as set out in section 3 of the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act.
The society played a key role in helping the video distributor to uphold freedom of expression, the very principle Ms Norton falsely claims it is opposed to.
Ms Norton accused the society of hypocrisy in seeking to downgrade the classification given to “The Passion of the Christ” when it has a history of seeking to upgrade classifications. One of the objectives of its constitution, shown on its website, is: "To support responsible freedom of expression which does not injure the public good by degrading, dehumanising or demeaning individuals or classes of people."
The society acknowledges that seeking to limit others' freedom of expression is a double-edged sword. But the depiction of gratuitous violence, acts of necrophilia, sex acts involving human excrement and urine, lengthy and explicit depictions of anal rape, to name a few of the activities found in the films the society has sought reviews for, are not examples of freedom of expression as understood by the consensus of common-sense New Zealanders.
In fact the act specifically requires excisions of such activities if there is a tendency to promote or support them. In contrast, religious freedom and free expression of religious faith are universally hailed as hallmarks of a civilised society.
The society agrees with Mr Hastings that the film does not represent that Jewish people are inherently inferior by reason of their religion and that reasonable members of the public are unlikely to read the film as anti-Semitic.
However, it takes issue with his dogmatic views that no child - he defined a child as a person under 16 years of age - should be allowed within a mile of this film because of its gratuitous and unrelenting violence.
Mr Hastings appears to disagree with himself because the NZPA reports him as saying that classroom applications for an exemption to show the film to under-16s for educational purposes would be considered (by him) if parental consent were given. To use Ms Norton's words, you have to laugh at the exquisite irony of the situation.
A resolute Mr Hastings is reported, as saying the rating would not be lowered after he has declared on radio that no child should be allowed near it. Then he says he would consider exceptions for educational purposes if parental consent were given.
But this is exactly what the society wants, except that it considers parents and guardians are better endowed to make this judgement than Mr Hastings who, incidentally, charges a $100 non-refundable fee on behalf of his office for every application lodged.
Section 44 of the act empowers the chief censor to grant an exemption for 16-year-olds to view an R16 film, in the circumstances outlined. However, the society argues that if the film was reclassified R then year 11 students (15-year-olds for example) could view the film at a theatre in the company of a supporting parent(s) or guardian(s) and teachers or religious instructors.
Ms Norton writes: "One final irony, the society has appealed to libertarian arguments stating that churches should make this call [whether people under 16 should view the film] with respect to their members."
Wrong. The society has stated only that parents and guardians should make this call, ideally after having first seen the film themselves.
She notes: "The society did not wish to afford the public the liberty to make the call with respect to “Baise-Moi”."
Irrelevant. No defender of Baise-Moi has ever publicly called for it to be open to young people under the age of 18, let alone those under 16.
(Incidentally, the society never called for a ban on The Piano Teacher and Y Tu Mama Tambien, it sought interim restriction orders).
Ms Norton claims that the society has been stung by the system it tries to exploit with the issuing of an R16 classification to The Passion.
While acknowledging a degree of irony in its position, the society contends that there is a world of difference between the gratuitous violence of “Baise-Moi”, “Visitor Q” and the like, and that of the violence in “The Passion of the Christ”.
David Lane, secretary and spokesman for the Society for the Protection of Community Standards, writes on behalf of its executive committee.
2. The Nature of Gratuitous Violence Illustrated from “Kill Bill – Part 1: Violence, Cruelty and Horror Volume 50, Number 20 • December 18, 2003 Review It's Only a Movie By Daniel Mendelsohn
“Kill Bill-Volume 1” a film directed by Quentin Tarantino In “Kill Bill-Volume 1”, you get to see (among other things) a fight to the death between two young women, one of whom ends up impaled by an enormous kitchen knife before the wide eyes of her young daughter; a pregnant woman being savagely beaten and then shot in the head at point-blank range on her wedding day; a man's tongue being pulled out; a graphic decapitation with a samurai sword; torsos sliced open; impalings with various instruments; and, in a scene that you'd be tempted to call climactic if the movie had any kind of narrative arc whatsoever, a twenty-minute-long pitched battle between a lone American female and dozens of Tokyo gangsters, in which the limbs of a great many of the latter get lopped off. It's saying something about the sheer quantity of battery and bloodletting that Tarantino works into this film that the final act of killing comes almost as something of a relief, and strikes you as being almost dainty: a young woman in a kimono has the very top of her head sliced off, quite neatly, in a tranquil, snow-covered Japanese garden.
In its decision dated 3 March 2004 the Board wrote:
[5] Violence is pervasive throughout “Kill Bill- Vol 1” but it is generally fantastical in nature – the participants engage in … routines that go beyond anything that could actually happen.
[40] The Board finds there are “significant acts of torture and infliction of extreme violence and extreme cruelty.” In “Kill Bill Vol. pursuant to section 3(2)(f) of the Act.
[56] The Board finds that the dominant effect of "Kill Bill Vol. 1" is of a cartoonish, ultra surreal even unreal movie... It is not intended to be serious .... The dominant effect on the mind of adult viewers .... Is not intended to be a serious film reflecting reality".
Comment. There is no concession in the Board’s report that this violence is gratuitous – designed to titillate, excite and amuse.
The claimed “gratuitous” violence in “The Passion of the Christ”
The Classification Office found “nothing” in “The Passion of the Christ” that falls within s3(2) of the FVPC Act 1993. It therefore found no evidence of anything that “promotes or supports, or tends to promote or support” “Acts of torture or the infliction of extreme cruelty” (s. 3(2)(f).
The Office, having claimed that “the violence is graphic and often appears to be gratuitous” gave as examples: “each strike of the nails into his palms [of the Christ] is shown from different angles … including actual piercing of the skin. More often however a spectacle is made of blood and gore resulting from the violence rather than the manner of infliction”.
Scholars state that anyone who has had a careful read of the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion will know that Gibson has made a genuine attempt to meaningfully depict the events recorded, including the Apostle John’s eye-witness observation that blood and water issued forth from Christ’s side when it was pierced by a soldier (John 19:34). Great weight is put on this observation by the writer (Jn. 19:35) which medical experts have reported is definitive proof that Jesus truly died. If so, on this ground alone, scholars state, the so-called “swoon theory” relied on by desperate liberals and sceptics to explain the ‘resurrection’, has to be junked. Furthermore the piercing event is acknowledged by John as a fulfilment of prophecy (Zech. 12:10 “They shall look on him whom they pierced…”). The Classification Office’s reference to a “spectacle of blood and gore” suggests that such a scene is included in the film to merely titillate the audience. Not so. It has great historical relevance.
The depiction of nails used in the crucifixion is an accurate portrayal of the historical account. The film does not depict the nailing from every conceivable angle as the Chief Censor stated on public radio several times. If blue tack or rope had been used as a means of affixing the Christ to the Cross the film’s detractors might be satisfied. However, Mel Gibson was correct to use nails. The Apostle John records that nails were used in his account of doubting Thomas who said:
“Unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
The Resurrected Christ responded to Thomas:
“Reach here your finger and see My hands and reach here your hand and put it into My side and be not believing but believing. Thomas answered and said to Him “My Lord and My God!” (Jn. 20:27-28).
The Classification Office decision states: “Most of the film focuses on his scourging, his enforced passage through the streets and his crucifixion” and these are interspersed with the “flashback sequences” showing Jesus giving sermons etc. These comments overlook the scenes involving the betrayal of Jesus, Judas’ demise, Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin and later Pilate, the interrogation before Herod, the release of Barrabas, Peter’s denial and numerous other aspects. The intercuts during the scourging serve to considerably soften the effect on the viewer, hardly a technique that would be employed if the intention of the film-maker was merely to offer a gratuitous gore-fest such as the bashing of the man in the “Rectum” Gay S/M Club in the film Irreversible.
The scourging as depicted, which the movie seems to place it in the context of John's gospel rather than of the Synoptics, has been criticised by some reviewers as without historical support and grossly overdone, even if it did take place. The suggestion is that its depiction is gratuitous. The Society disagrees and suggests that the Board carefully consider the following:
Roman scourgings were much more severe than Jewish ones. The victim might be beaten with rods, thorny clubs, chains, or leather lashes which had wires and sharp bones woven into them in order to tear the person's flesh from his body. There was no limit to the number of blows that might be received and the criminal often died under the lash. This punishment was so dreaded that Roman citizenship carried with it an exemption from being flogged. Romans generally scourged everyone condemned to be crucified in order to lessen the time on the cross. The Apostle Paul once escaped examination under scourging by revealing that he was a Roman citizen. [Acts 22:24-25] Most of the time he was not so lucky. In addition to imprisonments, stonings, and beatings, he received 3 Roman scourgings and 5 Mosaic floggings. [2 Cor 6:4-6, 11:23-24] On His final journey to Jerusalem, Jesus warned His followers that He would soon be turned over to the Romans to be mocked, scourged, and crucified. [Mt 20:17-19; Mk 10:34; Lk 18:33] Pilate wanted to flog Jesus and then release Him but the Jewish leaders would not be satisfied with anything less than the death sentence. [Lk 23:14-22; Mt 27:26; Mk 15:15; John 19:1] As a prelude to the crucifixion Jesus was taken into an enclosed courtyard, away from the Jews, where He was stripped and severely scourged in the Roman manner. St. Augustine concluded that since every sinner deserves many blows, Christ, the bearer of all our sins must have received an uncountable number of stripes. Jesus was beaten so severely that He fell several times on His journey to Calvary and finally had to allow Simon the Cyrenian to carry His cross for Him. [Mt 27:32]
SCOURGE; SCOURGING skurj, skur'-jing [mastix], mastigoo; in Acts 22:25 mastizo, in Mk. 15:15 parallel Mt 27:26 phragelloo): A Roman implement for severe bodily punishment. Horace calls it horribile flagellum. It consisted of a handle, to which several cords or leather thongs were affixed, which were weighted with jagged pieces of bone or metal, to make the blow more painful and effective. It is comparable, in its horrid effects, only with the Russian knout. The victim was tied to a post (Acts 22:25) and the blows were applied to the back and loins, sometimes even, in the wanton cruelty of the executioner, to the face and the bowels. In the tense position of the body, the effect can easily be imagined. So hideous was the punishment that the victim usually fainted and not rarely died under it. Eusebius draws a horribly realistic picture of the torture of scourging (Historia Ecclesiastica, IV, 15). By its application secrets and confessions were wrung from the victim (Acts 22:24). It usually preceded capital punishment (Livy xxxiii.36). It was illegal to apply the flagallum to a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25), since the Porcian and Sempronian laws, 248 and 123 BC, although these laws were not rarely broken in the provinces (Tac. Hist. iv.27; Cic. Verr. v.6, 62; Josephus, BJ, II, xiv, 9). As among the Russians today, the number of blows was not usually fixed, the severity of the punishment depending entirely on the commanding officer. In the punishment of Jesus, we are reminded of the words of Ps 129:3.
See: See also:
Some Old Testament verses that provide support and context are: Psalm 129.3 "Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long." Isaiah 52.14 "Just as there were many who were appalled at him--his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.
The Classification Office states in its decision of 20 February on “The Passion of the Christ” that "the historical setting in which this violence takes place has little direct relevance to a modern audience. This could induce a level of detachment even amongst those unfamiliar with the story." (Emphasis added). It is hard to understand how any Chief Censor or anyone could arrive at such bizarre conclusions. Just a few sentences earlier the decision states: “the story told in this film is very familiar to the vast majority of New Zealanders, the more mature of whom will be able to place this presentation of violence in that context.” (Emphasis added).
Despite the Classification Office’s assertions a “modern audience” of New Zealanders – the “majority” of whom are “very familiar” with the story - “will be able to place this presentation of violence in that context”. The “historical setting in which the violence takes place” does have direct relevance to a “modern audience”.
The Maturity of audiences 13+
The present Board of Review has addressed the issue of the maturity of young persons aged 13 years and older in its reclassification of the film “8 Mile”. The original decision of the Classification Office was R16 with a censor’s descriptive note: “Contains violence, offensive language, drug use and sex scenes.” On appeal it was reclassified by the Board to R13 and the descriptive note remained unchanged. The Board’s decision recognised “that 13 year olds have sufficient life experience and knowledge of sexual activities to understand what is happening in the film (8 Mile)” and that such “teenagers would have a sufficiently developed moral code to understand that arson and drug use have consequences.” The Board also recognised that these teenagers have rights under the Bill of Rights Act to view material for which there is no robust justified limitation.
It is noteworthy that the Board makes judgements about the “moral code” and yet the FVPC Act 1993 makes no mention of morality. Both censorship bodies have also justified the high levels of gratuitous violence in films like Baise-Moi by suggesting that they are “morality tales”. Could it be possible that “The Passion of the Christ” has a moral message? (e.g. “Father forgive them for they no not what they do …” the message of forgiveness).

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